NEW YORK (MainStreet) — When Christopher Watkins graduated from Coker College in South Carolina, he owed $60,000 to American Express. The 30 year old financed his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering with a credit card co-signed by his financially independent uncle.
"My advice to students using credit cards to pay tuition and fees is to major in an area of expertise that is lucrative and be open to the disappointment of going to a cheaper school that you can afford," Watkins told MainStreet.
Straight out of college, Watkins secured a job in Manhattan at Tishman Construction that paid him $84,000 a year.
"I worked 72 hours a week and paid $4,000 a month towards my debt," Watkins said. "I had cheap rent and very little responsibility so it was easy to pay off my credit card debt."
Today, Watkins is employed with the New York City Department of Design Construction and only owes $2,000 on his platinum American Express card.
"My uncle kept me in line," said the Manhattan resident. "He visited me in college every weekend to make sure I wasn't abusing my credit card privileges."
Like Watkins, some 70% of all undergraduate college students have a credit card in their name and about 91% carry a balance from one month to the next, according to Lexington Law data.
"Students looking to make a large purchase, such as books or dorm necessities, may want to look for a card offering a 0% intro APR for an extended period of time because it will allow the student to pay off the amount without any interest within the allotted time," said Julie Myhre with NextAdvisor.
The Annual Percentage Rate (APR) is the rate charged for borrowing, which often depends on credit history, and with 36% of college students having two or more credit cards in their name, the stakes are high.
"Most adults need to own only one credit card to manage personal business," said Kevin Gallegos, vice president with the Freedom Financial Network in Phoenix.
That's because screwing up with multiple credit cards can mean a seven year credit reporting penalty.
"The credit environment is unforgiving and credit card debt is likely to be the most expensive debt you'll ever service," said John Ulzheimer, contributor with CreditSesame.
Indeed, the average interest rate for a student card is about 13% but many have APRs that are 20% or higher depending on credit history, according to CreditCards.com Weekly Rate Report.
"The BankAmericard Visa card offers an APR as low as 10.99% but not all students who apply will get that rate," said Matt Schulz, senior analyst with CreditCards.com. "Those with thin or poor credit could see their rates go as high as 20.99% so be prepared."
While in some cases starting a professional life in a financial debt hole can prevent students from landing a job, renting an apartment, buying a car or even securing a cell phone, the upside is creating credit history.
"Credit grantors like to see a thick and positive file before extending credit," said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). "Therefore the student who responsibly manages credit will have a better chance at having future credit extended."
Credit cards without an annual fee are ideal along with those that waive the first fee incurred for late payment. The Discover It Chrome Card for Students will send text alerts as a reminder that payment is due. "Learning to build credit on a small budget is important but so is establishing a record of paying on time and longevity of account," said Matthew Goldman, CEO of Wallaby.
Like the Discover It Chrome card, the Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students has no annual fee and earns two points per $1 for dining and entertainment.
"Our top pick overall is the Citi Dividend Card for College Students, which offers 5% cash back on every $1 they spend within popular categories, such as movie theaters or grocery stores that rotate each quarter as well as 1% per $1 spent on all other purchases," Myhre told MainStreet.
- Written by Juliette Fairley for MainStreet